Lapid jets back from US after pre-election parley with Democrat advisers

Unclear why Yesh Atid head, now fully vaccinated, traveled to Washington instead of making do with online meetings; returns hours before airport shuts down

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Blue and White MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Blue and White MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

One of the last people to enter the country before the airport is closed at midnight Monday was opposition leader Yair Lapid.

Lapid, who has been in the US since Thursday for consultations with American political strategists, landed back in Israel before 6 p.m. Monday evening. At midnight, foreign flights will be banned from landing in Israel until the end of the month, in an unprecedented move approved by the government Sunday aimed at stopping passengers infected with COVID-19 from entering the country.

The trip to Washington, DC, was confirmed to The Times of Israel by Lapid’s spokesman.

The timing of the visit to the US was strange not only due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has largely grounded air travel, but also because it comes during what is seen as a critical juncture, just days before a February 4 deadline for parties to register their electoral slates.

The period is usually marked by intense jockeying among parties seeking to form alliances with like-minded politicians. Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party ran in the last three elections under the Blue and White banner with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, is this time around competing in a field crowded with parties seeking to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This has left the political arena ripe for potential mergers, but also made it a minefield of potential rivals, particularly Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, which is neck and neck with Yesh Atid in polls as the main challenger to Netanyahu’s Likud.

Lapid has been criticized for failing to capitalize on the muddled center-left of the political spectrum, where main rivals Labor and Blue and White have both all but collapsed.

Sa’ar, Lapid and Netanyahu are all running with the help of American political advisers, though Lapid is the only one to have traveled to the US for consultations thus far.

He has a longstanding relationship with Mark Mellman, a US-based pollster who runs Democratic Majority for Israel.

He is also consulting with Florida Representative Ted Deutch, a longtime friend, and other strategic advisers linked to the Democratic party.

Lapid plans on attempting to recreate the Democrats’ success in getting out the vote despite the pandemic, making use of door-to-door campaigning and small outdoor meetings, in person and virtually, in place of large rallies banned by coronavirus restrictions.

Democratic US Senate challenger Jon Ossoff at Dunbar Neighborhood Center during Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, Jan. 5, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Branden Camp)

Yesh Atid is also looking specifically to Democrats’ success in Georgia’s Senate runoff, where they managed to win by concentrating efforts on potential or likely supporters rather than attempting to win over undecided voters or flip those voting for other parties.

It’s unclear why Lapid needed to fly to the US for the meetings with the advisers, though it is possible he may have been using the trip to fundraise as well. Because his party split with Blue and White following the last election, he will only get about half the publicly financed campaign coffers he would have gotten had the parties remained together.

Lapid’s spokesman refused to comment on whether  he was fundraising on the trip. Health regulations in many US states are laxer than in Israel, which is currently under lockdown, and fundraising is seen as more effective if done face to face.

The spokesman said Lapid had not met with any members of the new US administration, which would have likely been wary of being seen as meddling in Israel’s election.

“Absolutely not,” the spokesman said. “We are not in DC to create a mess.”

While Netanyahu’s official campaign announcements and social media posts have stayed away from mudslinging online, one adviser, Likud spokesman Naor Ihia, attacked Lapid on Twitter over the trip.

“Next time Yair Lapid says that the prime minister is busy with his personal affairs, remind him that during a crisis he flew to the United States only to meet his pollster,” Ihia tweeted.

Others also criticized Lapid for flying while the country was in lockdown, and Lapid himself did not publicize the trip.

Lapid has been fully vaccinated with both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus shot, getting the second one a week before his flight, and it’s unclear if he will need to quarantine upon arrival.

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